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Avatar Project Seeks to Help Military Amputees

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

FORT DETRICK, Md., April 28, 2010 – In the blockbuster movie “Avatar,” Jake Sully, a former Marine who lost the use of both legs in combat, climbs into a vessel that magically restores his body when he assumes a new, 10-foot-tall avatar identity.

A new project being funded through the Advanced Army Medical Technology Initiative promises to bring some of that same technology to real-life wounded warriors to promote their rehabilitation and help to ease their reintegration into society.

The Amputee Virtual Environment Support Space project aims to create a virtual world in which military and veteran amputees can swap information and provide the peer support many lose when they leave military treatment facilities, explained Ashley Fisher, a program manager at the Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center here.

The project will provide wounded warriors a specialized version of the popular “Second Life” computer simulation game, Fisher said. Users will log onto the program through their computers to create an avatar of themselves -- essentially a virtual being, complete with the physical characteristics they assign it.

The avatar will be able to interact with other registered avatar beings – fellow amputees, caregivers, even friends and loved ones – in a virtual world that’s unencumbered by the restrictions of time, distance or disability.

As AVESS develops, users also may be able to check in with their professional caregivers, asking questions, getting information updates, and even seeing online demonstrations of the best way to do a physical therapy exercise or adjust a prosthetic device.

The Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center awarded a contract to ADL Co. last fall to assess the program’s feasibility and identify the best way to deliver it to military amputees.

“We tasked them with coming up with a roadmap, letting us know what was possible in developing a virtual world for amputee veterans, and letting us know what issues there are in terms of privacy, access, authenticating who was coming into the environment, all those types of issues,” Fisher said.

In wrapping up the first phase, the company created a demonstration environment using a standard Second Life platform. “So we did a walk-through of that, and got to see what the capabilities were,” Fisher said.

The first phase also demonstrated the need for a secure server to deny access to unauthorized players and participants known as “griefers,” who just want to annoy or cause trouble for the other players.

“We wanted to avoid that, because we really did want the veterans to be able to go in and express the issues they are having with the people they know are going through the same thing,” Fisher said. “And also, we needed it to be secure, because we want to try to bring families, and possibly even children, into the world, and we can’t really do that on the regular Second Life platform.”

So during AVESS’ second phase, to begin soon, ADL will develop a virtual environment on Second Life Enterprise, an updated version of Second Life, using a private, secure server.

Comparing the concept to what moviegoers saw on the big screen in “Avatar,” Fisher said she sees tremendous therapeutic value in enabling amputees to define their avatars as they choose, and to immerse themselves in those characteristics as they interact with other avatars.

Some may elect to reveal their amputations in their avatars, assigning them prosthetic limbs to match their own. Others may choose not to, preferring to use the virtual world as a temporary escape, as depicted in the “Avatar” movie when Jake’s avatar was able not only to walk, but also to fly among the beings in the magical land of Pandora.

But for users in the latter category, Fisher said, she expects many to reveal their true characteristics as they become more comfortable communicating with other people in the virtual environment.

For some, the transformation may come as users come to accept themselves and their new appearance – something Fisher said is difficult enough in a hospital setting, where military amputees are surrounded by other people who look like them, but even more so as they try to reintegrate into their communities.

Fisher called AVESS a promising new development at the Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, which is overseeing the program for the Army Medical Research and Materiel Command.

“Our mandate is to explore new technology and how it can support service personnel,” she said. “This is an exciting project for [the research center], because it will let us define what we see as a potentially effective way to provide another form of support to military amputees.”

Alice Kruger, president of the nonprofit organization Virtual Ability -- which is collaborating with ADL on the project -- shares Fisher’s excitement about the doors AVESS will open to enhance wounded warriors’ quality of life.

“For individuals with disabilities, virtual worlds are a powerful way to connect with others, to access peer support and to participate in activities that might not otherwise be possible,” she said. “This project will establish the best way to adopt this technology for the unique needs of the military amputee community.”


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